How To Protect Your Transgender Child and Your Rights While Traveling

From bathrooms to airports, traveling can be stressful and dangerous when you are transgender. Here are ways to protect yourself and the children in your care while getting to your next destination.

Mother and daughter in airport
Photo: Grace Canaan

Debora King of Philadelphia felt nervous before her family's first major trip since her 5-year-old daughter came out as trans. Because transgender travelers frequently encounter systemic hurdles and harassment while they're away from home—especially at airports and international borders—King took careful steps to ensure the journey to and from her in-laws in Canada would go smoother. Families traveling with transgender kids should plan ahead to stay safer.

Packing the Suitcase Means Supporting Self-Expression

King's friends and family—an otherwise supportive bunch—didn't initially understand her anxiety, initially telling her to dress her daughter in more neutral or boyish clothing to avoid questions. But King didn't want that for her daughter. "The kind of person she is, I don't even think she'd go for it," she says. "She's very adamant about who she is and what she likes."

Trans people often negotiate their authenticity while traveling—adhering to and performing gender by changing their behaviors and outward appearance to avoid harassment. But even if trans people agree to these consolations, the limited sense of agency can be traumatic, and families should plan to support their children's mental health if they choose or are forced to do this. Take your child's lead by prioritizing their desire to honor their authenticity and ask kids how they want to be supported.

Preparing and Packing Important Documents

Like many transgender youth, King's daughter uses a passport and other legal documents that reflect the gender she was assigned at birth. King feared she could face interrogation or even be removed from parental custody if border patrol suspected malice. To avoid panic if this were to happen, families can roleplay or discuss possible encounters and worst-case scenarios, developing action plans and talking points together, said Ellen Kahn of the Human Rights Campaign. Preparation doesn't need to frighten kids and should be approached as caregivers would pursue other conversations about safety.

While it can be overwhelming and even impossible to change legal documents, trans youth who have access to documents that match their authenticity experience better mental health outcomes than those who don't. Some states don't allow birth certificates or other legal documents to display an updated gender, but the process to do this for passports has been simplified and a gender-neutral option is coming soon. It's even possible to apply for a passport using a name that isn't legally recognized.

Kahn said families with children whose documents don't reflect their authenticity should bring "proof that a child knows who they are." These are often called 'safe folders.' King slipped a letter in her daughter's passport that explained inconsistencies in paperwork. Caregivers could include a school ID or other records, insurance or healthcare documents, a letter from a pediatrician or therapist, family photos and drawings, and informational packets that teach people about trans identity. This can legitimize a child's identity if doubted.

It's frustrating that so much thought and worry needs to go into planning a vacation, but having written proof of relationships, consent to travel with the children, and explanations for document discrepancies can give parents of transgender kids peace of mind

Add print-outs from government websites, TSA, and other knowledgeable sources as reminders of protocols and your rights. "Keep trusted people on speed dial," Kahn said. Include family and friends but also hotlines for the ACLU, NCLR, Lambda Legal, and other trusted organizations.

Register with the nearest US Embassy using the STEP program if you're traveling internationally and include their general helpline too.

Healthcare and Emergency Planning

No one wants to get sick or hurt while on vacation, but for many transgender folks and the people who love them, needing medical care while away from home carries an extra burden. Because discrimination against trans people is common in healthcare settings. When interacting with new providers before or during trips, caregivers should use discretion and quietly discuss matters related to trans identity to ensure young people aren't outed to strangers in public.

Heron Greenesmith, an attorney who co-wrote a guide to the Affordable Care Act for queer families, said it's illegal under the ACA for medical providers to deny care to trans patients, but because a positive healthcare experience is not a protected right in most countries, discrimination often still occurs in the United States and elsewhere. Pediatric care for trans youth is under attack, so the quality of care in some areas might be especially poor or inconsistent. Know your child's rights as a patient. Research laws in specific regions to learn about risks and protections for trans people.

Finding a Safe Destination

When looking for pandemic-safe respite, Leticia*, a parent from California, said loved ones recommended trips to states that had introduced anti-trans legislation. "It hadn't crossed their minds," she said, "and I had to remind them that this isn't safe for my kid," a 13-year-old who is nonbinary. Any anti-trans legislation points to unfriendly territory. Discuss safety needs with family, friends, and even schools or community groups so trans kids aren't overlooked.

Leticia chose familiar vacation spots and opted for the privacy of VRBO instead of hotels. Some queer-centered travel options, like FabStayz, are available too. Kids on school trips might not have a say over destinations or accommodations, but youth traveling throughout the US with their schools are protected under new Title IX interpretations. Advocates should be prepared to defend their rights to participate in sports or events and access appropriate bathrooms and housing.

Download GeoSure for ratings on queer safety in specific neighborhoods, and use drive-thrus for a more private way to eat in unfamiliar areas.

Travel advisories will keep families abreast of threats, including specific risks for queer travelers. Search for a country and view alerts under "Local Laws and Special Circumstances."

From Bathrooms to Airports—Tips for Transit

Bathrooms can cause stress and harm for transgender and nonbinary people, so map gender neutral bathrooms along routes. "Between Starbucks and Target, we pretty much always have a place where my kiddo can use the restroom," said Leticia, who uses apps like Refuge Restroom to find additional options. Airports, service areas, and transit stations won't necessarily have neutral restrooms or keep them in convenient and accessible locations, so find out where they are before you arrive. Assign bathroom buddies so no one has to go alone–even if kids are typically more independent at home.

Airport body scanners use a binary system that asks TSA operators to make assumptions about a traveler's gender and anatomy, forcing operators to assign and input a gender for each passenger into a machine prior to scanning. Machines are designed according to cisnormative standards, and bodies that do not conform could be flagged. Additionally, travelers' medical devices or personal garments (including prosthetic penises, breast forms, or chest binders) could register as anomalies on the machines, prompting pat-downs and bag searches. Avoid options that have metal if possible, and inform officers that these items are medically necessary.

If you decide to keep medical items in a carry-on, know they aren't subject to liquids limits, and workers scanning or searching bags can't question why you have them. "Any time you feel someone's questions are overstepping, ask for a manager or turn to another TSA agent to come over," said Kahn. "None of those things are against regulations." That's also true for medications, including hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Just make sure prescriptions are clearly labeled.

Passengers in the U.S. can refuse to walk through scanners but will be patted down instead. If a transit worker insists that a pat-down is necessary, an officer will be assigned based on binary (male/female) assumptions about the traveler's gender. It's possible to request a different worker if the traveler would feel more comfortable with someone else. Young people can request privacy or the accountability of more public pat-downs, but refusing will likely result in ejection from the airport. Caregivers should closely monitor interactions. No one should be asked to reveal sensitive or private areas of the body.

Families can pay for TSA precheck to avoid this part of the process altogether, but the added cost might not be feasible and applicants are required to use government-issued documents to qualify. Families can also request a passenger support specialist to guide them through security and act as an advocate throughout any airport in the US. This isn't an option at border crossings by car and might not be available at international airports. Calling each airport and international border terminal you expect to use will help you determine expectations and learn about available support.

You can film and photograph interactions in public areas, including security checkpoints and interactions with TSA or police. If you believe your rights are being violated, you can call attention to this, request additional staff or a supervisor, and contact an attorney or call one of the hotlines you saved before the trip.

"What we know anecdotally and empirically is that people get stopped for many reasons–and those reasons often have to do with race and color and perceived religion or ethnicity," says Greenesmith. "People who live at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities are going to have magnitudes more experiences of discrimination than people who have one or two intersections."

Remind kids that you'll always do what you can to keep them safe. "As long as we're there, they feel pretty safe," Leticia said, reminding caregivers that young people just need reassurance that we'll always have their backs.

*Last name withheld for privacy.

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